A Sermon for Reformation Sunday

Reformation Sunday
Luther Memorial Church
October 31, 2010


When Franklin invited me to preach on Reformation Sunday, I accepted immediately and without hesitation. I’ve never had the opportunity to preach on this occasion, even though I have a doctorate in Reformation history. For all sorts of reasons, but primarily because most Anglicans don’t consider themselves Protestant, Reformation Day does not loom large in the Episcopal or Anglican calendar. It even feels as though I’m doing something just a little bit subversive or naughty, being with you today and hearing Lutherans sing A Mighty Fortress. It’s been many years since I’ve had that experience.

It is a delight to be with you this morning. I know that Grace and Luther Memorial have a long tradition of cooperation and amity. I have been at Grace for only a little over a year, and it is my goal, as it is Franklin’s, to reknit the bonds of affection that tie our two congregations together. I would also like to take a moment to express our deep gratitude for your continuing support of Grace’s food pantry, which has been serving the needy downtown for over thirty years now.

One of my favorite images of Luther and of the Reformation as a whole was painted by Luther’s friend and colleague, Lucas Cranach the Elder, shortly after Luther’s death in 1546. It was one of the panels of an altarpiece meant for the City Church in Wittenberg. Other panels of the piece depict Luther’s colleagues baptizing and presiding at the Eucharist. But at the foot of the altar, as a foundation, Cranach painted Luther preaching to his congregation. What makes this image so interesting is that Cranach places in the picture, an image of the crucified Christ.  As he preaches, Luther points to that image, so that everyone’s attention is fixed on Christ.

Cranach was a theologian in his own right, and his images, often accompanied by explanatory texts that were written by Luther, were an important means that the ideas of the Reformation were communicated to common men and women. And here, he gets it exactly right. It is a perfect depiction of what Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation were about. To use the words of St. Paul, “we preach Christ and him crucified.”

Our texts this morning offer us several perspectives from which to view that central concept: preaching Christ crucified. The selection from Jeremiah challenges us to reconsider our very understanding of God. It might be helpful to provide a little context. Jeremiah was active in the sixth century BCE, during the period when the southern kingdom of Judah was under threat from the Babylonian Empire. Jeremiah challenges the kings of Judah when they seek to make an alliance with Egypt. He prophesies at great length about the destruction of Judah. For a time he is exiled to Egypt; at other times he is imprisoned. He survives the end of the kingdom of Judah and when many of the religious and political elite are taken to Babylon in exile, Jeremiah remains behind, and the tone of his prophecy changes. Now he offers a message of hope both to those who remained behind and to the exiles who are trying to make lives in a foreign country.

Today’s text comes from that period of Jeremiah’s activity. Hopeful it is, and revolutionary as well. Jeremiah speaks of a new covenant that will replace the covenant Yahweh made with the Israelites in the wilderness. It will not written on tablets of stone as Yahweh inscribed the tablets Moses brought down from Mount Sinai. Instead, it will be written on the hearts of the people. More powerful still and more revolutionary are the words that come next: Jeremiah says that God will forget their sins.

This may not seem either dramatic or revolutionary, but I encourage you to ponder it a moment. Does your image of God include the notion of God’s forgetfulness? I should think not. Qualities such as omniscience and perfection seem to preclude the possibility that God might forget anything. Indeed, for those of us my age or older, forgetfulness seems to be a plague, not a benefit. I have trouble remembering the names of old acquaintances, or remembering where I put my cell phone, or how to do those things that used to be second nature to me. It’s a sign we’re growing old, we tell ourselves and each other. So to think of God as being forgetful, not remembering is just a bit off-center; it seems to be slightly askew.

And that’s the point. Can you imagine what Jeremiah’s message might have sounded like in the streets of a destroyed Jerusalem in the early 6th century BCE? After all, this was the same guy, who just a few years earlier, had been proclaiming doom and destruction so loudly and persistently that he was imprisoned? Now, everything he promised had come to pass. He ought to be gloating and saying “I told you so.” Instead, he changes his tune and talks about a new covenant, written on the hearts of the people, and a God who after apparently obsessing over the people’s sins, now forgets them?

That’s not a little bit off-center or askew, that is radically disorienting. What’s disorienting is not just the dramatic change in the prophet’s message; it’s also the change in the understanding of God. God is no longer the fearsome judge and punisher; God is loving and forgiving.

I want to come back to that in a few minutes, but before I do, I would like to make a connection between the reading from Jeremiah and the gospel. Today’s gospel is a brief segment from the eighth chapter of John, in which the gospel writer is heightening the conflict between Jesus and his opponents. John makes a sharp contrast between Jesus and “the Jews” and it’s important to remember whenever we encounter this conflict in John, that he is writing back into Jesus’ own experience conflict between Jews and Christians that was intensifying in the late first century. Remember that Jesus, and all of his followers were Jews; that the conflict, if such there was, was not between rival religions, but between competing interpretations of how to be a Jew, how to follow the law.

One reason the Gospel of John took such an antagonistic attitude toward the Jews was because of the very power of the transformation the gospel writer and the community in which he lived experienced in Jesus Christ. Their encounter with the Risen Christ was so intense that it shattered all of their preconceptions and shattered as well the lives they had lived before in Judaism. It resulted in intense competition, even hatred, with the Jewish community from which these Christians came.

Something of that deeper conflict is present here, as Jesus chides his opponents for thinking that as children of Abraham, they were somehow uniquely privileged by God. I don’t know how it is among Lutherans, well, yes I do—I’ve listened to Prairie Home Companion—but we all sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that our ethnicity, or nation, or denominational affiliation is proof enough of a unique relationship with God. Jesus denies it, and we must too. We remake God into an idol that reflects our values, assumptions, likes and dislikes.

There is a view among some theologians that the unique gift Protestantism offers to Christianity is a demand that all of us resist the temptations to make such idols. The Protestant Reformation, led by Martin Luther, challenged the cultural and religious assumptions of the sixteenth century, called for a God who was free of the box of the institutional church and allowed all of us, lay and clergy alike to experience directly, God’s love, grace and forgiveness.

It is a message that needs to proclaimed anew in each generation, each cultural and historical context. For as humans, we want to believe that the ways in which we experience God are the only, the primary, or the privileged ones. We want to demand that our experience of God must be shared by everyone, or it’s not true, or of God.

But that’s not the only way in which our images of God may enslave us. For some of us, too many of us, and certainly for many who are alienated from God and from the body of Christ, the image of God with which they struggle is a God of judgment and damnation, not unlike the very image from which Luther was freed by his experience of grace in Jesus Christ. For whatever reasons, some of them related to our personal history, our emotional or psychological make-ups, to experience God’s love and grace seems impossible.

Of course, it’s not just a struggle within individuals. It’s a struggle for the soul of Christianity itself. We are bombarded almost daily by news stories that take delight in or express outrage at the statements or positions of conservative Christians. Studies affirm that the political stances of many conservative Christians are doing a great job of alienating the larger population away from Christianity. That’s especially true among young people. The greater tragedy is that most of those statements are a far cry from the forgiving love of a gracious God.

That’s the message our texts proclaim loud and clear. To all of those who, for whatever reason, proclaim a different Gospel, bear witness to a different God, or even experience a different God, our message must be as clear as the Jesus Christ whom Luther proclaimed. For it is Jesus Christ whom we must proclaim; Jesus Christ who is the incarnation of the God who loves and forgives us all. Or to put it in the prophet’s language: Yahweh says, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”

It is that vision, the power of new life, which we experience in Jesus Christ when we receive the grace of God, to which Martin Luther bore witness, which the Reformation sought to extend to all humanity that should fill us with the knowledge of God’s forgiveness. It should transform us as well, empowering us to extend that same forgiving love to the world around us. Thanks be to God.

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